Johnny Cash 'Unearthed': 10 Essential Tracks From the Vital Box Set

David Redfern/Redferns
Johnny Cash performs on stage at the Country Music Festival held at Wembley Arena in London on March 31, 1986.

The last decade in the life of Johnny Cash was a revelation, musically speaking. His guest vocal turn on the final track of U2’s 1993 LP Zooropa was just the tip of the iceberg that drifted into the national purview following Rick Rubin’s pursuit to rescue the Man in Black from mismanagement. Rubin signed Cash to his American Recordings label, then known more for its associations with Slayer and Andrew “Dice” Clay than country music, and began producing a six-volume series of stark, dark folk albums that saw the country icon delivering deeply spiritual renditions of material from the likes of Leonard Cohen, Loudon Wainwright III, George Jones, Kris Kristofferson, Nine Inch Nails, U2, Soundgarden, Bruce Springsteen, Will Oldham and Neil Diamond, performed either alone on his acoustic guitar or backed by such prolific guests as Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, Lindsay Buckingham, Mick Fleetwood, Flea and Chad Smith of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Don Henley, Smokey Hormel, Merle Haggard, Sheryl Crow, Fiona Apple, and his son John Carter Cash, among others.

For the kids of Generation X, the American Recordings series was a perfect gateway to the career of Johnny Cash, whose vast catalog on Columbia is one of country music’s richest treasure chests. Many people saw their once skeptical minds expanded about the genre thanks to Rick Rubin turning them onto Johnny, helping the public gain a deeper understanding about country and its ominous roots in love, God and murder. 

Cash and Rubin recorded right until the hours leading up to Johnny’s dying day on Sept. 12, 2003. And there’s no more indispensable collection that covers the totality of this time than Unearthed, the long-out-of-print five-disc box set that made its debut on remastered vinyl Nov. 3. It collects four additional volumes of outtakes from across the span of the duo’s work together as well as a Best of Cash On American that cherry-picks the finest moments from the first four volumes of the series, rounded out by 1996’s Unchained, 2000’s Solitary Man and 2002’s The Man Comes Around. Of course, there were two additional American Recordings albums released following Unearthed, including 2006’s Hundred Highways and 2010’s Ain’t No Grave, which contain songs he recorded while he was in the hospice stage of his life. However, its Unearthed that continues to serve as the definitive statement of the country icon’s last ten years on earth, and it’s a joy to see it back on the market.

Here are 10 of our favorite tracks from the set.

10. “Rowboat”

It’s unclear exactly which Heartbreaker was on a Beck kick back in 1996, but the affinity was certainly amplified across the band’s recorded output that year. In addition to their faithful cover of “Asshole” on the She’s The One soundtrack, Petty and the boys brought this deep cut off Mr. Hansen’s prefab classic Stereopathetic Soulmanure to the table. Back in 1993, “Rowboat” was an early shade of the older, wiser Beck we would see a decade later on records like Sea Change and Morning Phase. But the way Cash and the Heartbreakers delivered it really brought the knots out in the wood floor of his lo-fi honky tonk. 

9. “Hard Times”

Longtime Johnny Cash sideman Norman Blake, whose relationship with The Man in Black dates back to such classic albums as Bitter Tears and Orange Blossom Special, found himself playing a recurring role on these American sessions, contributing guitar on the majority of Solitary Man. He also plays on this Stephen Foster song that dates back to 1850, making it the oldest song Cash has ever recorded. “A very strong song, said to be Stephen Foster’s favorite song,” explained Blake in the liners to Unearthed. “So legend has it, it was the one that was found in his pocket when he died.”

8.“‘T’ for Texas”

People give Mick Jagger shit for his solo career, but he certainly redeemed himself in 1993 when he recruited Rick Rubin to produce his third solo LP Wandering Spirit, as well as a still-unreleased recording session of scorching blues with the sadly defunct Los Angeles band The Red Devils backing him up. And before Rubin decided to make American Recordings an all-acoustic affair, the producer brought the Devils into the studio with Johnny Cash to help him kick the dust up on a cover of this Jimmie Rodgers standard made famous by his old pal and fellow Highwayman Waylon Jennings. This is the intersection where “The Road to Kaintuck” met Exile On Main St., and it’s a pity more didn’t emerge from their time together. 

7. “Down There By The Train”

This alternate take on the song Tom Waits wrote for Johnny is even better than the one that wound up on American Recordings. Tom himself wouldn’t release his own version of “Down There By The Train” until his 2006 rarities set Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards, and the rendition performed by Cash on Unearthed definitely hits closer to the dead-of-night barstool hue delivered by its author. 

6. “Cindy”

When Johnny tackled “The Mercy Seat” by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds on Solitary Man, his delivery of the Tender Prey centerpiece cemented the psychic connection between these two masters of the murder ballad that many fans knew always existed. But to hear these great baritones of non-classical music collide on this American folk song, which dates back to the early 20th century, should have Rubin thanking his lucky stars they didn’t manage to make a crack in his studio’s foundation. 

5. “Redemption Song”

When this cover of Bob Marley’s beloved hymn was recorded in 2001, nobody could’ve predicted Joe Strummer and Johnny Cash were going to pass away within 10 months of one another. So it can only be construed as sweet fate that the former Clash frontman decided to extend his California vacation long enough to accept Rick Rubin’s invitation to cut a reggae song with Johnny while they were recording The Man Comes Around. For the real fanboys who spend their time playing fantasy executive producer, putting these two towers of Columbia Records together in a studio was at one time purely a dream. But the endearing way they trade the wise words of Bob (himself channeling Marcus Garvey) revealed a shared love for each other, exuding a sense of warmth seconded only to the Uprising original.

4. “Understand Your Man”

“That’s a ‘kiss my butt good-bye, I’m leavin’ song,’” laughed Johnny Cash in the liner notes to Unearthed, beautifully penned by renowned music journalist Sylvie Simmons. “No I did not write that to June, but I did sing it to all the other women ha ha ha!” But the way by which the Man in Black conveys these salty sentiments on this spare reworking of his 1964 tune is highly reflective of his devotion to the work of his old compadre Bob Dylan by using the melody of “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright,” then not even a year old as a single itself. In fact, one could even imagine Cash and Rubin being inspired by Dylan’s own early '90s back-to-basics acoustic blues albums Good As I Been To You and World Gone Wrong for the template of the American Recordings series, especially when you hear the similarities by the way the guitar sounds particularly up front in the mix. But more than likely it’s just pure cosmic coincidence. 

3. “Thirteen”

The biggest takeaway from that first American Recordings LP was just how far the dark majesty of Johnny Cash resonated beyond the banks of country music. And perhaps no other song featured on the record signified that outreach than this song written exclusively for Cash by Glenn Danzig, presented here in an extended version unique to the box set. “It took me about twenty minutes to write ‘Thirteen,’ which is my understanding of Cash and his career,” the Misfits frontman told Futhermocker Magazine in 2004. Danzig nailed it, and when you pair the metal icon’s pen to Johnny’s voice, out comes the sound of God and the Devil collaborating on music together, only to realize their visions are closer than they ever realized. 

2. “Brown Eyed Handsome Man”

Here you have half of the Million Dollar Quartet playing a signature tune from the true architect of rock n' roll, Chuck Berry. One of two songs Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins cut during the American sessions (the other being the 1934 Rex Griffin tune made famous by Perkins, “Everybody’s Trying To Be My Baby”), it would be the last time the two longtime friends and tourmates were in a studio together. For Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, who tried to keep up with the two legends, being in that room must’ve been pure nirvana.

1. “Let The Lower Lights Be Burning”

There isn’t a more exemplary distillation of the purity of Johnny Cash than My Mother’s Hymn Book, arguably the most treasured artifact from the Unearthed box and the only title from the set made available as a stand-alone release. “My mother had an old book called Heavenly Highway Hymns,” Cash explained in the liner notes. “She used to sit and play those songs in it—old church songs, country gospel songs, dozens of them—all the way through, over and over, in her lifetime.” The most beautiful and haunting of the selections Johnny chose for this collection was this sea hymn from post-Civil War songwriter Philip Paul Bliss that dates back to 1871, sung by Cash and his family around the bedside of father Ray as he was crossing over. “At some point I looked at him and, though he had been sound asleep in a coma for days, his lips started moving and he started singing that song along with us,” the singer revealed in the liner notes. “The more we would sing it, the more he sang. And he opened his eyes and looked around at us as we were singing.”